Christian Virtues for Civil Disobedience

What attitudes should Christians display when compelled by conscience to disobey the government?

Before addressing that question, let’s review one thing. Christians normally should not disobey the government. Quite the opposite is the case. In most situations, Christians should obey the government even when governmental directives appear unreasonable or overreaching. There is one broad biblical exception, that is, when the government either forbids an action that God requires, or requires an action that God forbids. I wrote a short piece about civil disobedience last year—early on when churches were wrestling with governmental responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. But today I’ve got something else on my heart.

I’m concerned with the attitudes that Christians display on those rare occasions when they feel compelled by conscience to disobey the government. What heart postures should Christians carry into civil disobedience?

The short answer is that Christians need to respond in humility, grace, meekness, and faithfulness. Christians should not be arrogant, quarrelsome, insisting on their own way, flaunting their rights, or focused on power.

Let me offer a recent example. In the region of the United States where I live, governmental leaders have frequently attempted to forbid singing during church services, with the stated purpose of limiting the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Many Christians have considered the government’s prohibition of corporate singing to be an example of forbidding something that God requires (see 1 Chronicles 16:9, 23; Isaiah 42:10-11; Jeremiah 20:13; James 5:13; plus many dozens of such instructions throughout the Psalms, like 9:11; 30:4; 33:1-3; 149:1-3). Let us also grant that Christians could still disagree on this. A Christian might argue in good conscience that for the sake of protecting the lives of others, we ought more closely to adhere to whatever directives our federal, state, and local governments issue. But, for the sake of argument, let us assume that many Christians will feel free in their consciences to disobey a governmental directive not to sing during a worship service.

What kinds of attitudes should Christians display while interacting with others about their decision to disobey, whether in oral conversation or in written forums? What if someone challenges you about your decision to sing anyway? How should you respond to such a challenge? Today I’m not asking what you should say in response, but rather: With what attitude should you respond?

In such instances, Christians need to respond graciously, gently, prayerfully, with humility—without acrimony, anger, or unkindness.

How do I know this is correct?

The reason I know this is correct is because these are the types of qualities that are repeatedly emphasized throughout Scripture. If we truly believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and if we genuinely want to live according to it, then we must trust that when God charges us to act in a certain way, he has good reasons for such instruction.

So if you ever come to the point where you believe that you have to exercise civil disobedience as a Christian—whether in regards to singing in church or some other action—let me exhort you to do so with the attitudes that are required of all Christians when they interact with others. Here are some examples of such attitudes from Scripture. Read them slowly, carefully, receptively:

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth… Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy… Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God (Matthew 5:5, 7, 9).

Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Romans 12:16-18).

But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do (Galatians 5:15-17).

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another (Galatians 5:22-26).

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling (1 Timothy 2:8).

…to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people (Titus 3:2).

…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (1 Peter 3:15-16).

For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor (1 Peter 2:15-17).

These verses exhibit the types of attitudes that Christians should display toward others, including those rare occasions when they find themselves compelled in their consciences to disobey a governmental directive. May such attitudes as are found in these verses be conspicuous in our conversations, prominent in our social-media presence, and increasingly characteristic of the way we interact with others.

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